Fantasy Review: ‘The Thief’s Gamble’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Sometimes a generic fantasy yarn is just what you need.  I love books that try something new, push the limits of the genre, and make me think.  But sometimes a quick little romp is ok too, right?  Sure it is, and when in that mood there is nothing wrong with ‘The Thief’s Gamble.’  It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.  You got your talented thief with a good heart, benevolent wizards, a mysterious stranger in the bar, ancient lost magic along with the commonly used elemental magic, and a whole island of baddies to overcome.

So the story starts.  The Archmage is searching for artifacts from the good old days to better understand lost magics.  To do so he has send several groups out to collect these.  Our heroine, Livak, is coerced into working with one of these groups as they need her thieving skills to get a piece that has been hard to get.  No hard feelings though, despite being coerced she is going to be paid well by mage Shiv and his band.  After some early shenanigans the plot gets going when it is discovered another group is after the same artifacts.  This race of yellow haired jerks is using unknown magic and horrible brutality to get their way.
I liked quite a bit about this book.  Livak is a genuinely interesting character, fairly resourceful within her means, very smart, sometimes witty.  Her chapters are written in the first person, whereas chapters dealing with other characters are not.  She is actually a pretty adult character as well, ok with her sexuality though it is never her defining feature.  She has a couple ‘adult’ relationships with various degrees of attachments, like real people do!  Ryshad, the mysterious stranger, is quickly shown to be loyal to his employer and new friends.  While the various mages tend to run together in my mind, the Archmage and Shiv did stand out.  Shiv is a rare openly gay character in the fantasy genre, though it is only known through a few passing references.

The plotting was a strong point as well; fairly fast paced fairly focused.  There were only three or four threads to follow throughout the book, but they were all tied together by the end.  One small diversion to visit an old mage dragged on too long, but outside of that everything moved at a brisk pace.  While this was the first book of the series it could be read as a standalone; it ends with good conclusions for surviving characters.  Oh, ya there is an actual sense of danger, not everyone will survive the journey.  While never the focus, the violence factor really ramped up in the last twenty percent of the book. 

Only a few complaints here.  I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.  The history of the land was a bit jumbled, or at least it confused me.  Some things I thought were part of ancient history instead turned out to be only a few generations old.  Lastly the magic was a bit inconsistent, sometimes incredibly powerful, others fairly limited.

3 and a half stars.

PS.  Not related to the actual book, but whoever wrote the excerpt on the back of the paperback copy (which also appears on Goodreads) didn’t even attempt to read the book.  He/she actually mixed up some of Livak’s plot line with a separate minor character.  And the ‘teaser quote;’ ‘Never bet against a wizard, you might win,’ has zero to do with the story either.  Just bad packaging.   

Books in the Series
The Thief’s Gamble
The Swordsman’s Oath

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